When newly diagnosed, you can be forgiven for underestimating how much sitting around, waiting, and general mundanity can be involved in having cancer. You’ll soon discover that it’s a far cry from the melodramatic big screen depiction. Staring endlessly into space as you wait for appointments, medication and treatment is a newfound ritual you practice intermittently. Time just seems to be against you when you have cancer. The days turn into months, which can then turn into years – before you know it, you’re in disbelief that life before ever truly existed. It can feel like you are living in a separate timeline, with treatment schedules and scan dates taking the place of birthdays, gigs and school timetables. So, how can time affect your cancer journey?

You’re not alone if you find yourself routinely fixated on dates, from consultations to blood tests and treatments. After all, they can sometimes function as the only presiding order in cancer’s chaos: indicators that this time can come to an end. Still, they can only guide us so far. An end-by date, or orderly schedule, is out of the question – cancer doesn’t listen to reason. With the cruel unpredictability of illness, you are left not only fighting cancer, but time itself.

It can be all-consuming and particularly challenging if you’ve not had the pleasure of working on cancer time before. Life is now completely different to that of your peers. You feel distant and isolated, as though left on the bench or sidelined. While life goes on around and without you a sense of betrayal towards others may arise. Feeling this way is entirely normal and justified. The mind also inevitably wonders to what life would have looked like without ever being diagnosed. It’s okay to grieve what might have been and what isn’t.

Although clichéd, it remains true that we cannot see illness coming. This makes it unusually testing. When mapping out our future life stages, to no one’s surprise, cancer doesn’t feature. Illness comes out of the blue and heightens feelings of apprehension about the future, making it difficult to internalise your own cancer journey. From the lack of representation to the grey areas where illness often resides, it can be tough to understand where to go from here. You’re left with all the questions but no clear answers. Will I leave this chapter behind me? Do I ever talk about it again? Will I just be that kid that had cancer forever? Should I count the days till the next scan? How do we even begin to make sense of the chapter that nobody sees coming?

Experiencing cancer highlights how frequently we all take time for granted. A seemingly ordinary or trivial aspect of the day-to-day may be a privilege for someone whose life is forever transformed by cancer. There are undoubtedly wide-ranging struggles across society outside of illness – which should not be invalidated – but it does feel as though the gift that is time is often underappreciated. Common complaints about getting older, or superficial material goods, are tiresome when time is suddenly warped in front of your own eyes. This is particularly poignant for members of our community who receive a terminal diagnosis. Solidarity should help us to find gratitude with each day that passes and do our best not to take time in any context as definite.

So, is it possible to come to terms with this distortion and loss of time? Optimistically, I would like to think so. Proverbial wisdom encourages acceptance, telling us that it is what it is and that everything must happen for a reason. What it doesn’t tell us, is everything in between. Illness is a process – one of grief, love, anger, hope, frustration and solidarity. Personally, I still don’t know how true any of the sayings are, and I’ve welcomed the prospect that I possibly never will. To varying degrees, however, time may heal – although I can’t promise it will ever all make sense and that wounds won’t leave a scar. Cancer will continue to be as erratic as ever. We can neither control, pause or stop time. All we do can is live, not even for the best days, not for the worst days, just for the everyday – for now. That is more than enough.

About the Author

Sophie Byrom has been volunteering since December 2021, working with us to ensure that the concerns and priorities for young people with a cancer diagnosis are fully considered throughout the services and information provided at Flynne’s Barn. This has included reviewing the website and giving feedback to help make it relevant and inviting for young people, and reviewing our counselling documents to make sure the service is as accessible as possible, bearing in mind the stigma that exists around mental health. In this blog series she posts on varied aspects of the cancer experience. Sophie also designs the artwork and infographics accompanying her writing!

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